Teaching Creative Dance Through the Foundations of Dance Language: Space, Time, Weight and Energy
I have discovered, over many years as a dance artist, that the art of teaching young children does not differ much from the creative process involved in making adult choreography. Therefore, it seems important to create a class that subconsciously embeds the fundamentals of dance language that all dancers will need to employ: weight, time, space and energy. Early exposure to these concepts, in a kid-friendly way, can make a difference in the soul of a child and in his or her development as a future dancer and as a confident, imaginative individual.
Pre-K children (ages 4 and 5) are eager to pretend and speak through their bodies, improvising to stories, poems and songs. My creative movement class is designed to meet the children on their developmental level and challenge them to explore the incremental baby steps that will lead to greater awareness and confidence in life.
I try to utilize many teaching examples from authorities in the field. Then, I make them my own, or come up with my own ideas, valuing my own skills, personality, experience and intuition. Here is how I shape my 45-minute class into three 15-minute time components: "The Warm-Up"; "Movement Makers"; and "Steps and Patterns."
"The Warm-Up" begins with children sitting in a circle. Colorful rubberized "dots" on the floor act as visual place markers, defining the space we will use. The movement focus of the warm-up circle is an age-appropriate study of the technique of the body: How does my body move? With live piano accompaniment, we sing many simple childhood songs in unison, like "Head and Shoulders, Baby," "Sally Go Round the Sun," "Forward and Back, Bobolinka." We move through various simple yoga and Pilates positions, like "The Cobra," discovering how body parts move in isolation and are then integrated into whole body activity. Fun problem-solving questions ask children to find points of balance with their bodies, like balancing on one foot/one hand, on 10 fingers/10 toes or flipping upside down to find balance on two shoulders.
We explore weight exchange and levels in space with body shapes often by giving names to the shapes: "the table," "the bridge," "the chair," "the ladder." By reaching up high and climbing down eight steps of an imaginary spatial ladder with our hands while the pianist plays descending notes on the musical scale, we explore steps in abstract space. I then ask the children to hold onto, for example, the eighth high step with their hands, and the second step with their foot. Immediately, all can find balance on one foot because of the imaginary support of "rungs on the ladder" in space. Unknowingly, the children have created symmetrical and asymmetrical technical use of parallel arms and legs together.
When the time seems right, we travel around the center circle using songs that children love to sing and dance to: "Shoo Fly," "Skip to My Lou" and "Walking, Walking," experimenting with hops, skips, jumps, walks and runs. Having a live musician allows us to experiment with various time elements—meters and tempos—so that the children try to control their own bodies in time and space, using slow, medium or fast support.
We end the warm-up with a favorite folk dance called "Chimes of Dunkirk," which incorporates clapping, stomping, circling with a partner and then choosing a new partner. Children explore space, time, weight, energy and socialization quite naturally by dancing and moving in unison to an engaging, traditional song and dance, bringing the worldview of dance to a very young learner.
"Movement Makers" usually involves a poem, story, picture, song or question that inspires children to use their bodies as instruments and storytellers, improvising, pretending and exploring in space and in time to music. I often use beautiful pictures as motivational tools: A picture of a pretzel will help them think about a curved and twisted shape; a picture of fireworks will inspire sprightly percussive jumps and reaches through space.
Stuffed animals serve as visual aids as I manipulate them, encouraging the children to explore the technique of how an animal moves. The "elephant" asks them to shift balance from one side of their body: right arm/right leg together, to left leg/left arm together, developing center balance and coordination, and exploring heavy weight-shifting.
"Steps and Patterns" involves props, too: hula hoops, plastic dots, a bamboo stick. Each week, I lay the props out in different visual patterns around the room. Recently: hoop, hoop, hoop, dot, dot, and repeat that pattern. Then, each child participates individually in passing through the pattern with his or her body. Ideally, this pattern would ask for one foot, the other foot, one foot, then jumping with two feet together on each dot. The pianist then repeats this musical pattern. The children love this gross-motor, task-oriented exercise, and it usually ends with a grand jeté exercise of running and leaping over the stick. This shifting of weight and coordination of baby steps simulates the same type of large movement through space experienced at the end of an adult technique class.
The class finishes in the original starting circle to once again support emotional security, closure and "reverence" after an exciting movement experience. We express the satisfaction and success of working together creatively. DT
Mary Seidman is artistic director of Mary Seidman and Dancers in New York City. She teaches children of all ages at Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, NY, and directed her own school of dance for children in NYC for 10 years. Seidman is a guest artist and adjunct professor at colleges and universities and earned an MS at Lesley University, Cambridge, MA, and an MFA through the Hollins University/American Dance Festival program.
"I'm not just teaching classes, I'm teaching lessons. I am teaching learning that focuses on personal experience, starting with the child as the artist. Every class lesson has a focus. I write a sheet for parents on what the focus of the class is: goals, activities. This is real learning: how the learning in dance is learning in life." —Dr. Rima Faber, founding president of National Dance Education Organization and chair of the task force that developed NDEO's Standards for Dance in Early Childhood, available at www.ndeo.org
"In Pre-K, I begin to introduce ritualized sequences of entering and exiting the dance space, which become norms for all age groups. Single-file entrance, seating, shoe removal. Even these seemingly simple preparations become important control factors for efficient use of time, respectful behaviors and focused attention." —Catherine Gallant, choreographer and educator, PS 89, New York, NY
The story of Peter Rabbit can be used as a springboard for learning by asking the children to explore the space around Peter's rabbit hole: "The springboard idea is the visual image of the old gnarled tree where the bunnies live, and the movement concept is the shape of the roots and the negative and positive space they create and how one moves in and out of these spaces."—Mary Ann Lee, director, University of Utah Virginia Tanner Creative Dance Program, from her article, "Learning Through the Arts"
More than Hopping like Bunnies
"The elements of weight, space, time and energy are truly about how one relates to her environment.
When a child understands space, she is able to share, get into lines at school, honor another's space and feel safe.
Understanding the element of time helps children with impulse control and frustration tolerance. It also helps them move toward something they need and away from something that is overstimulating.
A balanced sense of weight allows a person to release and trust and also stand in one's power and get what they need.
Energy or flow shows us how one expresses herself in the world. Are emotions free-flowing, with no control, or so controlled they stay bound inside? Teaching a balance between these two extremes can help children safely express their emotions."
—Candy Beers, dance therapist, Richmond, VA
Photo by Matthew Murphy at Mark Morris Dance Center